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Mark Shenton’s top 50 musical theatre songs: 20 to 11

Kelli O'Hara in South Pacific, Nicola Hughes as Bess at the Regent's Park Opera, Summer Strallen in Candide. Photos: Tristram Kenton/Joan Marcum Kelli O'Hara in South Pacific, Nicola Hughes as Bess at the Regent's Park Opera, Summer Strallen in Candide. Photos: Tristram Kenton/Joan Marcum
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Things are starting to get serious as our associate editor, Broadway critic and resident musical theatre expert Mark Shenton counts down his favourite 50 songs in the history of musical theatre. We are revealing them 10 at a time, with the final top 10 published on October 26. Shenton has only considered songs specifically written for musical theatre productions and only listed one song per musical. This is an inevitably subjective selection, but please list your own favourites in the comments below. We continue with numbers 20 to 11, including music from Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim.

Mark Shenton's top musical theatre songs: 50-41 Mark Shenton's top musical theatre songs: 40-31 Mark Shenton's top musical theatre songs: 30-21


20. The Music and the Mirror from A Chorus Line

Broadway 1975 (music: Marvin Hamlisch; lyrics: Edward Kleban)

Why I love it: The greatest behind-the-scenes musical about the inner workings of putting on a Broadway show, Michael Bennett’s production originated at the Public before becoming a smash hit on Broadway (where it became the longest running show in history, until it was eclipsed by Cats and then The Phantom of the Opera).

Notable performances: Donna McKechnie’s passionately danced and sung performance in the original production is one of the most ecstatic dance-song combos in musical theatre history. The Music and the Mirror encapsulates the artistic struggle that the show chronicles so astutely.

19. Stars from Les Miserables

London 1985 (music: Claude-Michel Schonberg; lyrics: Alain Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer)

Why I love it: London’s longest-running musical, now in its 33rd year at the Queen’s, Les Miserables is a giant – for both its amazing scale and its impact. Javert’s big second act aria Stars is the show’s most musically thrilling moment.

Notable performances: Javert was originated at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Barbican by Roger Allam, but no one has sung it as passionately and thrillingly as Philip Quast in the 1995 10th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

18. A Cockeyed Optimist from South Pacific

Broadway 1949 (music: Richard Rodgers; lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II)

Why I love it: Very topical when it first premiered – just four years after the end of the Second World War – South Pacific tells a serious story about the American wartime effort in the Pacific, but dares to find romance in its midst. The score percolates with unrivalled warmth, like in the sublime A Cockeyed Optimist, but there are also harsher edges, including Hammerstein’s most incisive song about the roots of racism in You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.

Notable performances: Kelli O’Hara in a PBS showing of the Lincoln Center production.

17. Make Our Garden Grow from Candide

Broadway 1956 (music: Leonard Bernstein; lyrics: Richard Wilbur)

Why I love it: Leonard Bernstein wrote at least three Broadway all-time classics – West Side Story, On the Town and Wonderful Town – but his songs for the theatrically problematic Candide are unrivalled, in my opinion, in his repertoire. Make Our Garden Grow is the most hauntingly beautiful of anything he wrote.

Notable performances: Julian Ovenden and Scarlett Strallen in a 2015 BBC Prom performance.

16. Comedy Tonight from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Broadway 1962 (music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)

Why I love it: The first Broadway success of Stephen Sondheim as both composer and lyricist, Forum has one of the best statements of artistic intent in its opening number: that this will be a show intent on entertaining you and making you laugh. It’s hilarious and sets you up for everything that follows.

Notable performances: Zero Mostel, the show’s original star, in the 1966 film version.

 15. There’s No Business Like Show Business from Annie Get Your Gun

Broadway 1946 (music and lyrics: Irving Berlin)

Why I love it: A celebration of showbusiness in all its myriad forms, There’s No Business Like Show Business is another of Irving Berlin’s great songs that have provided a soundtrack to American life, including God Bless America, White Christmas and Easter Parade. But this song perfectly encapsulates the joy of show people and performing: “Nowhere could you get that happy feeling / when you are stealing that extra bow”.

Notable performances: Ethel Merman, Broadway’s original Annie Oakley, performed the song with the Muppets.

14. Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ from Oklahoma!

Broadway 1943 (music: Richard Rodgers; lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II)

Why I love it: Oklahoma! is widely credited as changing the direction of musicals and introducing the integrated musical play as opposed to musical comedy to Broadway. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration also launched a run of hits by the duo that is still unrivalled today. Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ opens Oklahoma! – and captures the audience instantly.

Notable performances: Before he was Wolverine, Hugh Jackman came from his native Australia to lead the cast of the National’s 1998 revival.

13. Epiphany from Sweeney Todd – The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Broadway 1979 (music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)

Why I love it: Sondheim’s macabre musical masterpiece about a serial killing barber and his amoral baker sidekick has the composer’s most chilling and theatrically thrilling score, and is probably his greatest overall masterpiece, now as much at home in the opera house as it is in a theatre.

Notable performances: The title role, originally sung by Len Cariou, has been played by numerous leading men since, including Denis Quilley (in the show’s London short-lived London premiere at Drury Lane), George Hearn, Bryn Terfel, Michael Ball and Norm Lewis, among countless Sweeney’s large and small I’ve seen and loved.

George Hearn (who originated the role in the the show’s first national tour) sings the song opposite the original Mrs Lovett of Angela Lansbury:

12. Another Openin’ Another Show from Kiss Me, Kate

Broadway 1948 (music and lyrics: Cole Porter)

Why I love it: One of Broadway’s greatest-ever (and wittiest) joint song and wordsmiths Cole Porter’s most enduring musical is Kiss Me, Kate (though plenty of songs from other now forgotten or subsequently re-engineered shows have endured as standards); and none celebrate theatre itself as joyously as the the opening number to Kiss Me, Kate. (Another glorious – and incredibly erudite – song from the show is Brush Up Your Shakespeare, with its immortal lyric: “If she says your behaviour is heinous/kick her right in the Coriol-anus”).

Notable performances: This classic is frequently revived (there’s another due on Broadway in 2019, to star Kelli O’Hara); here it is stunningly performed from the 1999 Broadway revival production, filmed in London in 2002:

Brush Up Your Shakespeare, performed by Michael Gibson and James Doherty in a 2014 BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall

11. Summertime from Porgy and Bess

Broadway 1935 (music: George Gershwin; lyrics: DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin)

Why I love it: The great George Gershwin wrote some of the last century’s greatest musical theatre songs in his short life (he died aged 38). The score for Porgy and Bess is his single greatest achievement and Summertime soars above a stunning score.

Notable performances: These days Porgy and Bess is done as often in opera houses as it is in theatres, but my two favourite stagings were at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park in 2014 and on Broadway in 2011 (with a cast led by Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald in the title roles).

Audra McDonald sings it in concert:

Listen to the playlist on Spotify:

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